Hunting Fishing

Catching striped bass a controversial thrill in Northern California

Sacramento angler Bob Prinzo fishes for striped bass in late April on the Feather River.
Sacramento angler Bob Prinzo fishes for striped bass in late April on the Feather River.

‘I guarantee we’ll catch something over there.”

That’s a bold statement from a fisherman. After all, fish don’t always cooperate.

But there’s a reason why J.D. Richey, a Sacramento fishing guide, makes his living taking clients fishing on Northern California’s rivers and lakes. Plus, on this particular late April morning, the fish he was targeting – striped bass – weren’t exactly hiding.

The bass were chasing schools of small fish swimming down the Feather River. The hungry bass would announce where they were by splashing the surface as they attacked their prey. Richey would coast his 20-foot boat as close to a “boil” as he could without spooking them, and we’d cast our lures into the feeding frenzy.

Sure enough, Richey’s bold proclamation proved not all that bold. I flipped my lure – a spoon-shaped jig designed to imitate the flutter of sickly baitfish – at one of the splashes. When I lifted my rod tip a second later, the line violently pulled back. The 30-pound test braided line ripped out of its spool with a “ziiiiiiiiiing.”

It wasn’t long before Richey and the other angler on his boat were also leaning back against the weight of the lunging striped bass on the end of their lines.

Scenes like these are why striped bass – called “stripers” by many anglers – are a beloved game fish in Northern California that support a recreational fishery valued by one estimate at more than $47 million.

Each spring, stripers swim far up Northern California rivers to spawn. The migration draws hordes of anglers along their path. After catching a few of them, it’s easy to see why. Striped bass are aggressive by nature and will bite on a variety of baits. Artificial lures work wonders. So do live minnows and hunks of dead sardines. You can catch them from the shore or from a boat. It’s not uncommon for a boatload of anglers to catch 30 fish or more in a single outing. We did.

Stripers’ tendency to charge baitfish in groups leads to moments of delightful fishing chaos. If one person catches one, chances are the rest of the group on the boat will hook one, too.

And, boy, can stripers put up a fight. Even a 12-inch shaker will pull with a power that belies its size. Big ones will rip line out of a reel and leave your forearms aching. I can’t even imagine the fight put up by the largest striper ever caught in California – a 67-pounder caught in Merced County in 1992.

Size and fight aren’t the only appeal. Striped bass also have a sweet, flaky meat.

“Make damned good fish tacos,” Richey said.

But maintaining a striped bass fishery in California has become controversial in recent years. Striped bass are a non-native species that prey on native fish, including salmon. On the day I fished with Richey, the “baitfish” the stripers were eating were juvenile salmon that had been released upstream from the Feather River Hatchery in Oroville.

Powerful agricultural interests, who have seen their water deliveries curtailed to protect declining native fish populations, blame stripers for many of the woes facing salmon and other native fish species. They’ve been pushing to have striped bass numbers reduced.

Recreational fishermen and fish scientists push back by saying that striper numbers also have declined in recent years. They argue the bass are used as a scapegoat to deflect attention from the harm caused by farms’ and cities’ incessant demands for river water. Stripers have lived alongside salmon and other endangered fish since they were first introduced into California in 1879.

“All of the sudden now it’s the stripers’ fault,” said Richey, who also guides for Chinook salmon in the summer and fall. “It’s a diversionary tactic.”

Stripers were certainly far from the only things we saw eating baby salmon that morning. Herons and egrets lined the Feather River’s banks, jabbing at the tiny fish as they swam past. Terns and other predatory birds dive-bombed the salmon from above. We caught largemouth and smallmouth bass that had been gorging on them too.

For what it’s worth, we did our part to thin the stripers’ numbers.

California fishing regulations limit an angler to keeping two fish a day, and the bass need to be at least 18 inches long. The three of us left the river with limits.

And, yes, they made damned good fish tacos.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow.